Not all virtual events are created equal

Just over 10 years ago I hatched an audacious plan in conjunction with Diarmaid Lynch of Switch New Media. The plan was that we’d run a tech event (with a twist). But what made this an audacious plan was that we’d live stream it and allow live chat in real time, using Twitter.  We’d have a small audience, crammed into a conference room in central London, but we’d pack the room with broadcast quality cameras and run the thing like a TV show. Great sound, a proper set, good lighting, – and we’d allow people to comment and ask questions live. Amazingly, we pulled it off.

We had a good live stream audience (in the thousands) as well as around 100 people in the room. Despite corporate firewalls most people were able to watch it live, regardless of the browser they were using (and this was an issue back then). We had media sponsors who helped promote it. And we had corporate sponsors behind us – like IBM and Microsoft – to help fund the thing. And we had compelling keynote speakers to draw people in. 

The secret to its success was that it was a proper event. It had an element of theatricality. In fact, possibly even an element of show business.  There were glitches, of course. But it worked. And since then the concept has been honed and improved.

Fast forward just over ten years and everyone is offering “Webinars” or live streamed events. In lockdown there is no alternative. But, my goodness, where is the show business? 

The business world has suddenly, apparently, embraced what we were offering a decade ago. Except, of course, they are overlooking the fact that without the show business the audiences will ultimately go away. The sheer volume of “webinars” is simply unsustainable.

All the old world event rules still apply. There needs to be a reason to attend an online event as much as a real in-person event.  Networking and connecting comes into it, certainly. But the content needs to engage as well – offline and online. 

As we come out of lockdown physical events will return but it’s likely that travel policies will be slow to unstick. Large events will be tricky. And, in any case, there will also be a reluctance to travel and mix in big groups. But I suspect that the amalgam event will return – a modest, in-studio live event (with invited guests and speakers) combined with streamed as live content. And the whole thing professionally anchored. And everything properly mixed, streamed from a robust platform, with crisp sound and polished continuity and slick collaboration and networking. 

Because anything less than this isn’t an event – virtual or not.